The Black and White Photography Process
Created | Updated Jan 28, 2002
The black and white photographic process is simpler than that of colour, so photographers usually learn this method first. The process varies, depending on the chemicals and paper used, but the basic idea is the same. The particular methods described below are common to both processes.
Cameras and Film
First, and most obviously, you need black and white film. Black and white prints can be made from colour negatives but much of the contrast is lost, making the production of a good print a lengthy and trying process. You also need a camera of some description.
Film varies according to format1, speed and quality. Generally speaking, a faster film will allow you to take pictures in lower light conditions but there will be an increase in grain size as you enlarge your prints. Although standard black and white film is not suitable for normal machine colour processing (known as C41), it is now possible to buy special black and white film which can go through the normal C41 process, enabling you to try out this medium and get your prints developed anywhere.
You can use just about any type of camera for black and white photography, including a simple home-made, pin-hole camera. The most common camera types are:
- Viewfinder/Compact - these are the most user-friendly cameras. Their focus is fixed so the photographer can simply point and click. Unfortunately this camera is useless for close-up photography and is rarely used by serious photographers, although it can be handy for creating a record of shots you want to go back to and take properly later. More fully-featured compact cameras may include a zoom lens, some programmed settings and a small built-in flash unit.
- Single Lens Reflex (SLR) - This is the type of camera used by most photographers because of its versatility. It has interchangeable lenses and can be focused easily. This type of camera allows you to control the aperture2, the shutter speed3 and the point of focus.
- Medium and Large Format - These cameras use either roll or sheet film to produce a larger negative, allowing for much finer and more accurate recording of detail. They are not really intended for 'on the hoof' photography and are mostly limited to studio work, wedding photography and the like.
- Camera Obscura - Also known as a pin-hole camera. This is the simplest camera in construction but not the simplest to use. This camera is sometimes created and used as the basis of a school science experiment. It is also the oldest type of camera and comprises a light-tight box with a pinhole in one side and a small flap that covers the hole. The photographic paper lies on the inside wall opposite the pin-hole. The camera is then taken outside and placed on a steady surface and aimed at the subject. You basically point it in the general direction of the subject as this is a very inexact form of photography. The flap is opened and the light is allowed in for, say, one minute on a sunny day or longer for cloudy and darker days. The flap is closed and the negative is developed.
Next, you need to expose the film. To expose the film, load it into the camera and take your pictures. When the film is finished, it is rewound into the light-proof casing. Remember to rewind the film if you have a manual camera or the light will get in when you open the camera-back, ruining your film. Refer to your camera manual to do this.
Processing your Black and White Film
After you have exposed the film, you need to develop the negatives. The development process varies according to type and speed of film, brand of chemicals used, temperature of developer and whether you are using stock solution or a dilution made with a proportion of water. Accurate measuring of solutions and their temperature is essential for correct development. Most films have the development times for various popular brands and proportions of developer printed inside the box they come in.
There are several steps to the development process: developing, washing, fixing, washing, and drying. You will need:
Developer - Developer is usually sold in a gallon container in concentrated form. Developer reacts with the chemicals on the photographic paper, turning some areas black and leaving some areas white, according to how much light they were exposed to.
Fixer - Fixer is also sold in a gallon container. However, it is used full strength and it can be re-used. Fixer makes the image permanent and protects it from further exposure to light.
Water or Stop - Stop is another chemical which halts the development process and is also re-usable. Water is perfectly suitable for this stage.
First, in a pitch dark room - yes, this must be done in complete darkness as any light that gets in may ruin your film - you must load your exposed negatives onto a film reel and place it into the development tank. The reel holds the film in a spiral, allowing the chemicals to flow over every surface during development, to ensure full and even developing. A funnel fits over the top of the spiral, allowing chemicals to be poured in but preventing light from reaching the film4, and a lid fits over the top.
Now, with your film safely placed in the development tank you can step back into the light. Measure your developer (and water if diluting, according to manufacturer's instructions) and check its temperature. The development time depends upon the temperature of the chemicals. Pour the developer into the tank and agitate continuously for the first 30 seconds then again once every 30 seconds for the duration of the development.
Pour the developer away and pour water or stop into the tank. Agitate for 30 seconds then pour the water out. If using stop, pour it back into the stop container. Pour in the fixer and agitate continuously for 30 seconds then intermittently as described above, for five minutes. Pour the fixer back into its container.
At this point, you may take the negatives out of the tank for viewing, should you so desire. If they appear milky, they may require a couple of minutes longer fixing. Next, place the negatives (still on the spiral) in running water. They are supposed to be washed for 15 to 30 minutes. This lengthy process can be cut down by using a hypo-eliminator or rapid-wash solution, which basically washes the negatives more quickly than water does.
The negatives are then placed into yet another solution, the wetting agent, and agitated briefly, which prevents them from getting water marks on them while they dry. Finally, you need to dry your negatives. A dust-free hanging dryer is best. This is basically like a small cupboard with a heater which keeps dust off your negatives as they dry. The drying process takes around 30 minutes. However, a normal hair blow-dryer can also be used.
Once dry, negative strips need to be cut up into manageable lengths, approximately six frames per strip. Do not cut up 35mm negatives individually as this makes them too small and extremely difficult to handle.
After your negatives are dry, you may begin to print your pictures. For this you need an enlarger - a machine that projects light through the negative onto an easel that holds the paper. You also need special light-sensitive photographic paper. Printing is done under 'safe-lighting', like the red-hued darkroom scenes shown in many films. You place your negative upside down in the enlarger (as the enlarger reverses the image) and turn the enlarger on. You look at the image, which is now the right way round, and focus it, adjusting the size of the projected image to fit the size of paper you wish to print on. Now you do a few practice prints on little pieces of photographic paper, called test strips, so you can determine the proper exposure time and aperture needed for the print. These are developed but not put through the entire printing process. After a little practice, you will finally learn to expose your prints properly.
After you have exposed the paper, you have to develop it. Again, there are several steps to the process. You should have four tubs set up for your chemicals: one for developer, one for the stop bath, one for the fixer and one for the final rinse. The batches of chemicals in the tubs can be re-used for a few hours, but should really be discarded every two hours or so.
First, the exposed paper goes into the developer and is gently agitated, ensuring the developer covers the whole surface of the paper, until the black parts of the picture are fully black. This usually takes around 90 seconds, depending on the temperature of the developer. Next, place the paper into the stop bath for around 30 seconds and ensure it is fully immersed. Remove the print and then place in the fixer for five minutes. You can take your print out for a quick look after the first minute. This saves wasting time finishing a print if it turns out disappointingly. Finally, you need to rinse your print for eight to ten minutes to remove all traces of chemicals. Photographs may be dried in the same way as negatives or hung up to dry naturally. If you are fortunate, you may have the use of a special drying machine, which comprises squeegee rollers to guide the paper and remove initial moisture, and heater bars and fan to dry the paper. These are very effective and quick, taking under a minute to turn your wet print into a dry one.
Most modern labs, many colleges and even some amateur photographers have processing machines which carry out the print processing and drying for you. These basically consist of the same stages and chemicals as for 'wet' processing (developer, stop, fixer, final rinse) with the added bonus of you placing your dry exposed paper in one end, and receiving the finished dry photograph at the other end, a couple of minutes later. The only disadvantage of machine processing is that it takes away some of the creative control that can be exercised by the photographer during the print development process.
Black and white photography is an interesting and fun way to be creative and artistic, and with the various options outlined above, anyone can give it a try.
Voilà! You're a photographer!